The royal battle of political dynasties

Metropolitan arrogance would have compared a Rahul triumph over Akhilesh as natural — akin to, say, India beating Zimbabwe in cricket

There were many battles that were simultaneously being fought in Uttar Pradesh over the past three months. The first was in the constituencies between candidates for the privilege of becoming a Member of the Legislative Assembly. The second was between political parties over the right to form a government in Lucknow. The third was a battle between different claimants to the post of chief minister. Yet, for a large part of the outside world, it was the fourth contest that caught the imagination: an unstated battle royal between the heirs of two political dynasties.

On Tuesday, as the Samajwadi Party (SP) coasted to a convincing victory, recording the best performance by any political party since 1985, the unanimous verdict was that Akhilesh Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh Yadav, had easily trounced the heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi family. An impressionable (and, often, craftily gullible) media that had been detecting pro-Congress undercurrents in chai shop talks were quick to change their tune and proclaim Akhilesh as the more authentic representative of the emerging young India.
Rahul Gandhi, whose energetic campaigning had mesmerised the babalogs, and who was confidently predicted to secure at least 100 seats for the Congress was, for the moment, discarded in embarrassment. Sundry anchors and pundits who till the other day were ready to proclaim that India needed a break from the wooden style of the good Manmohan Singh suddenly discovered a hidden streak of insolence when interrogating dejected Congress stalwarts who, in turn, tried to balance political realities with craven dynastic loyalty. The Establishment of India revelled as the first family squirmed with embarrassment at the near-zero returns from a high investment scheme.
It is fair to say that had the shoe been on the other foot, the reactions would have been more subdued. Metropolitan arrogance would have compared a Rahul triumph over Akhilesh as natural and almost pre-ordained — akin to, say, India beating Zimbabwe in cricket.
Falling back on defensive condescension, the suave Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh told a TV channel in all seriousness that Rahul, having a “national perspective” could not be put on par with a “regional leader” such as Akhilesh. Each had their place and when it came to the nation in its entirety, the likes of Akhilesh and for that matter Naveen Patnaik were to be found wanting. The implication was obvious: Rahul must rule India and the Yadav, Badal and Patnaik families should confine themselves to the states.
The point is not that Digvijay Singh was falling back on a disingenuous argument to firewall Rahul. It is my feeling that he was being deadly serious in his assertion. He didn’t mean to be offensive. He sincerely believed that the governance of the nation and the fortunes of the Gandhi were inextricably linked. One couldn’t do without the other.
What was put to test in Uttar Pradesh in the just-concluded Assembly election was two very different mentalities. The Congress and, for that matter, a section of the BJP, are puzzled by the growing clout of the regional parties. They are unable to comprehend why an Uttar Pradesh which, till just 15 years ago, imagined itself to be synonymous with the nation has now voluntarily chosen to be relegated to the level of the states.
To believe that India’s largest state has suddenly become narrow minded is to be unmindful of a very different phenomenon: the enlargement of the idea of India. The past three decades has witnessed a greater integration of India. There is now far greater mobility of population than at any point in India’s history; the insularity of village India has been shattered by better communications, access to the media and the emergence of a national market. Delhi may still be a long way from the district headquarters but it is less distant than it was 30 years ago. From Bollywood and cricket to terrorism, there are many more national concerns to the 25-year-old youth than confronted his grandfather.
By this logic India should also start behaving politically more like one nation and less like 25 different nations under one flag and Constitution. Yet, and this is the paradox, the political behaviour of the nation was far more composite when Indira Gandhi was at the helm than when Rahul Gandhi is trying to find his feet. Today’s political India speaks in a multitude of voices.
The explanation for this phenomenon is best left to the scholars. In understanding politics, however, what is important is the recognition that the one-size-fits-all approach is no longer inapplicable. The mega-welfare schemes promoted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the do-gooder National Advisory Council have floundered precisely because they can’t fit Punjab, Bihar, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh simultaneously. Yet, this is precisely the point that is insufficiently appreciated by the Planning Commission, the pan-Indian cosmopolitan elite and, most important, the Congress’ first family refuse to comprehend. They are still stuck in the centralised legacy of the Nehru order.
More to the point, this political pan-Indianism is convenient and an alternative to activism that is rooted in the regional ethos.
There was a time when federalism was resisted because it was believed to compromise the “unity and integrity” of India. Today, an India more secure in its nationhood seeks governance that is less remote and more accountable. These impulses have implicitly challenged the assumptions that necessitated a national political dynasty. Rahul may be a victim of the impersonal forces of history.

The writer is a senior journalist

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